Legendary Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell takes side project Dirty Knobs center stage with ‘Wreckless Abandon’
Before guitarist Mike Campbell became the frontman of newish rock quartet the Dirty Knobs, he spent almost 50 years as co-captain of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a run that ended with Petty’s death in 2017.
Campbell, 70, is an icon in his own right, a Hall of Fame guitarist, and hit songwriter for both the Heartbreakers and artists like Don Henley (“The Boys of Summer”) and Stevie Nicks (“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”).
The Dirty Knobs were a side project when the Heartbreakers were around, a way for Campbell to blow off steam with friends and dip a toe into the world of lead singer-dom. After Petty died, the Knobs became Campbell’s central gig, though he did join Fleetwood Mac for an extended world tour that began in 2018, replacing longtime guitarist Lindsey Buckingham.
These days, Campbell is about to birth the Knobs’ first album, “Wreckless Abandon,” out March 20, and first tour. “I’m in rehearsal and panic mode,” said Campbell in a phone call.
The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q: It feels so strange to watch you be a frontman. Does it feel weird to you?
A: No, it doesn’t. I’ve been doing it a while, actually. The Dirty Knobs have been together for like, 12 years or more, doing clubs in between Heartbreakers tours, so I’ve had a lot of chance to get used to fronting the band. I actually feel very comfortable there now.
Q: With some guitarists, you can tell there’s a frustrated frontman waiting to get out. You never (seemed) that way.
A: Well, no, I was never frustrated. I was so happy to be co-captain of the Heartbreakers. Having Tom as a leader, it was so easy to just support him, and that was pretty fulfilling. But I write a lot of songs, and I would give them to Tom, and I had so many songs after a while that he couldn’t write to all of them, so I started doing them myself, just to see what they would sound like. I just kind of organically fell into doing my own stuff.
Q: Do you look at this as your main project?
A: This is my band. This is my main project. This is what I want to do, and I always planned on doing this back in the day. I figured if the Heartbreakers ever took a hiatus, then I could focus on the Dirty Knobs. I love the band, and it’s spiritually rewarding, because it’s my band and my songs, and I’m very connected to it. That seems to be what I’m happiest doing right now, is doing my own band.
Q: The album came together after the Fleetwood Mac tour?
A: I started the album before the Fleetwood Mac tour. The guys were very patient. I said, I gotta go do this, and it might take a little while, but when I get back we’re gonna finish what we started. I had cut 90% of it before the Fleetwood Mac tour.
Q: How was that tour?
A: It was great. Long. Really, really long, much longer than any Heartbreakers tour. We went around the world. I love those people. It was fun playing those songs and seeing the world.
Q: There’s Olympic-level dysfunction in that band. Did you wonder what you were getting into?
A: Well, I got the call from Mick (Fleetwood), and he said, “We’d like you to join the band. It’s not an audition.” I was shocked. I said, “Give me 24 hours to think about it.” I weighed all the pros and cons and decided it would be worth it.
Q: And it was?
A: It was absolutely worth it. I’m very blessed to have done that tour, and if they ever want to do any more gigs in the future, I’d be down to do it.
Q: Do you find that fans know all the songs you’ve written — that they know the depth of your catalog?
A: I have a hunch that most Heartbreakers fans know the hits like “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” and “You Got Lucky,” that I co-wrote them. Maybe some of them don’t know; they think Tom wrote them. I was surprised when I looked back on the catalog — I wrote a lot of songs with Tom. Probably most people don’t realize who writes the songs. They think the singer wrote them, but that’s OK. They’ll stand the test of time, I hope.
Q: There’s a story in Warren Zanes’ Petty biography about you writing “The Boys of Summer” and Tom passing on it, and then regretting it.
A: My partner Tom and I had a beautiful writing relationship when he was alive. He was such a great lyricist. I would rarely write any lyric ideas. I would just write music and present him with a demo, and if he heard something he liked, he’d sing over it. I had this piece of music, and Jimmy Iovine and Tom were over at my house one day and I played it for them … and they passed on it.
A week later, Jimmy called me and said Don Henley was looking for a song. I go, “What kind of a song?” He goes, “An image maker.” (Laughs.) No pressure. So I pulled it out and (changed the chorus) and gave it to Don. And by the time I had driven home from his house, he called me and said, “I’ve got a song to your music,” and it turned out to be really good. A year or two later, I was with Tom, and he said, “Yeah, that was really good. I wish I’d had the presence of mind not to let that one get away.” That was sweet of him.
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